PARIS -- There was no combustion between Justine Henin and Serena Williams this time around. In fact, there was precious little oxygen to pump up their match.
The calendar Grand Slam balloon deflated for Williams Tuesday in an oddly muted French Open quarterfinal 6-4, 6-3 loss to the tournament's top seed. One of the more compelling rivalries in the women's game failed to deliver by any of the usual standards of tension, spirit or entertainment value.
Henin played a clean, clinical game, with five double faults her only overt mental lapse. She set the tempo with her patented bait-and-switch rallying, transitioning fluidly between deep, well-placed groundstrokes and judiciously-chosen slices and volleys.
Williams, the eighth seed, couldn't compete with that quality control, and that cost her a chance to follow up on her scintillating Australian Open title. She sprayed forehand errors and butchered most of her chances at the net. The 78-minute encounter left her baffled and openly self-critical.
"I don't think I've ever played so bad in the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam," Williams said. "Here I am always saying I want to peak at the right times, but I didn't have any peaks today. I've never played so hideous and horrendous and all those other words I can use to describe my play today."
Williams closed out her comments with an even harsher critique.
"I just pretty much stood back and let her take advantage of me," she said. "And I feel violated."
While Williams offended herself with her lackluster execution, Henin awarded herself an attagirl. Much of the advance hype for the match zeroed in on the last time the two women met in Paris, in 2003, when Henin won a controversial semifinal in which Williams accused her of unsportsmanlike conduct.
But Henin was focused on avoiding a repeat of a much more recent match -- the dramatic Sony Ericsson final in Miami in March, where she let the match slide off her racket.
"It's not about two match points -- they're only two points in the match," Henin said sensibly a couple of days ago. "But the fact is that when I was 6-5 down in the second set, I completely lost my mind. My emotions weren't under control anymore at that time."
Tuesday, the three-time Roland Garros champion said the key was that she "managed" her emotions, a business reference that seemed just right under the circumstances. All the conditions were right for Henin to punch the clock with no fuss. This is her tournament, her crowd, her comfort-zone Slam.
Where emotion can get the best of Henin, it frequently nourishes Williams. The only time the American drew on that energy was after she lost her serve in the first game of the second set. Williams served and moved forward, only to have a Henin backhand whistle back to her shoetops.
Caught off guard, Williams shoveled at the ball and watched the errant shot carom away, then hurled her racket onto the court, taking a good-sized divot out of it.
The tremors might have traveled across the court, but only briefly. Henin double-faulted twice in the next game and lost her service for the first time. Minutes later, down 1-2, 0-30, Henin consciously went about steadying herself. She later corrected a reporter who implied that she was in trouble.
"I didn't feel in jeopardy, I would say," Henin clarified. "I applied my tactics. I wanted to fire some shots down the line. I took responsibility."
Williams also owned up to her game. "Sometimes you've got to just step back and say, OK, try this, try that, or try Plan B," she said. "But I think my Plan B was to make errors, so obviously that never works."
She laughed when she said it, but with a kind of strangled sound.
For better or worse, Williams believes that it's her play on any given day that determines the outcome; she either wins, or beats herself. "All she had to do was show up," she said of Henin.
That's not entirely accurate. Henin showed up, all right. Williams didn't, but Henin didn't let that unusual absence divert her from Plan A. "I thought it was a good match on my side," she said. "How she played, really, I don't mind too much now."
A different challenge awaits Henin in the semis. Where Williams is capable of driving a Mack truck through the most narrow of emotional openings, Serbia's fourth-seeded Jelena Jankovic has shown fragility at similar tipping points, including her only previous appearance in a Grand Slam semifinal.
That match happened to be against Henin at last year's U.S. Open, and it was as public and histrionic as can be. Jankovic won the first set and was on the verge of going up 5-2 in the second when she let the swirling wind, a line call and the pressure get to her and became little more than an unhappy spectator as Henin reeled off 10 straight games.
Henin has won all five of their career matches, three this year and the last two on clay. But Jankovic is playing splendid, self-assured tennis at the moment and as Henin told the French-speaking press, the odometer gets reset to all zeros Thursday.
"I will focus on my objective, and whether or not she cracked, I mean, it doesn't matter," Henin said. "You might think that it's an asset for me, the fact that she's psychologically weak, but I don't pay attention to that. I will have to be quite cautious, in fact."
It was a comment as nifty as one of Henin's slice backhands, first establishing that she's the alpha dog in the pairing, and second, that it's as important to shut out an opponent's foibles as to combat her own.
Henin has been chastised in the past for gamesmanship. Now, having shed a marriage that wasn't working, having reconciled with her immediate family, she seems to have acquired a tool that might have been the only one missing from her kit. It could help her reach a fifth consecutive Slam final.
Bonnie DeSimone is a freelancer who is covering the French Open for ESPN.com.